Many of the devout save all their lives to make the once-in-a-lifetime pilgrimage to Mecca, the holiest city for Muslims, for the hajj — an obligation and sacred milestone for believers.
The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia saw more than 19 million pilgrims in 2019 and the hajj drew almost 2.5 million people to the city of Mecca, population 1.9 million. But this year, fewer than 10,000 pilgrims already in the kingdom will be allowed to attend.
The annual hajj, scheduled for July 28 to Aug. 2, 2020, has been canceled to stem the spread of the coronavirus. News of the cancellation “sent shock waves of sadness and disappointment across the Muslim world, upending the plans of millions of believers to make a trip that many look forward to their whole lives and which, for many, marks a profound spiritual awakening,” New York Times reported.
The cancellation isn’t just a blow to individuals and families who had saved up and planned. It will also hurt the Saudi economy, the Washington Post reported.
The umrah, an Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca, can be undertaken at any time of the year, in contrast to the hajj, which has specific dates according to the Islamic lunar calendar.
Loss of revenue from hajj and the pilgrimage is estimated at $12 billion, putting added economic stress on the kingdom, which has already been hit with low oil prices and the pandemic.
Saudi Arabia has recorded 170,639 cases of covid-19 and 1,428 deaths — one of the largest outbreaks in the Middle East. Mecca has seen some of the highest case numbers in the country. To control the pandemic, the country took unprecedented steps in February to suspend religious tourism. It ended its nationwide lockdown on June 21.
Combined, the umrah and hajj contributed about 7 percent of Saudi Arabia’s total GDP and 20 percent of its non-oil GDP, TRT World reported.
The hajj has been canceled before due to disease or war, Washington Post reported. The last time was in 1798 when Napoleon Bonaparte’s military campaign in Egypt and Syria disrupted the route to Mecca. Not since the founding of the modern kingdom of Saudi Arabia 88 years ago has the pilgrimage been so severely affected.
Muslims have traveled to Mecca since the first hajj in 632, overcoming adversity along the way. “For centuries, it was a feat just to make it to Mecca in one piece,” New York Times reported. Gradually, the pilgrimage grew from an elite pursuit of small numbers of people into one of the world’s largest Muslim gatherings.
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Curtailing the pilgrimage is a blow to travel companies from Texas to Tajikistan that specialize in getting pilgrims to and from the holy sites and providing accommodation along the way.
Pilgrimage packages cost from $3,000 to $10,000, said Tariq Kalach, who runs a Beirut travel agency that was planning to take 400 pilgrims to Mecca this year. He also provides services to Islamic associations that pay for poor Muslims to make the trip each year.
“It is a catastrophe on all levels — economic, social and religious,” Kalach told New York Times